My camera bag is loaded with rolls of 35mm film and my lodging for LeDuc’s Creekside Motel in Cheboygan, MI is booked; let’s do some street photography. Mackinaw City was my focus on this photo excursion and weekend of village voyaging, but to maximize my exploration, I decided to kick my boots off about a half an hour east of Mackinaw City, in the town of Cheboygan. Without the ability to resist observing and photographing anywhere, I set out in this tiny Lake Huron-shoreline burg to capture what the street provided.
Acceptance for the photographing of quiet small-town streets did not come easily for me. My yearning for a Garry Winogrand-like New York City scape was strong. The burning in my shutter finger to document Vivian Maier-like imagery in Chicago’s glorious downtown Loop will never be extinguished. Big cities will always appeal to me for the simply fact that there are people. To me though, the photographing on the streets of small towns is equally vital and rife with creative possibility.
Growing up, I wondered why all the photographs were the same: sunrises, sunsets, a pretty river, etc. Those subjects are great for photographs; I’ve photographed them before and I will in the future. My question has always been: What about everything and everyone else? Doesn’t something that does not fit the criteria for a beautiful landscape also deserve to be photographed? So of course, once I discovered Williams Eggleston, William Christenberry and Stephen Shore, I was delighted. One of my favorite aspects of small-town photography is that it allows one to photograph a location that isn’t constantly viewed by the masses.
The Street Photography of Buildings
People are my favorite to photograph but since there’s such an absence of them, especially in small towns, also because even if there were people there’s still COVID-19, I find my photographs tend to gravitate to buildings as a sort of structural portrait to represent a specific place. Another characteristic of small towns that interests me is color. There are an abundance of earth tones, at least around Michigan, so there’s no shortage of grays, browns and greens. This is good because it makes a color easier to distinguish when a subject or scene has it.
While walking through and around Cheboygan, I began to notice some buildings with simple lines. There was a calm they brought, I think because the structures weren’t covered with garish advertisements or the unattractive aesthetic of government-issued signage. Photography is about motivation and purpose. Storytelling and portraits are my favorite but on this trip, my photographic motivation and purpose was to simply photograph what I saw and to be in the moment.
After much walking and looking for signs of people, two kids were crossing an incredibly unbusy intersection on bicycles, which was a fantastic small-town scene. A local pub had motorcycles parked in a row in front of it and a dirt-driveway basketball hoop was flanked by blossoms and a pickup truck; all very much as it should be in a small Michigan town.
If you’re looking for a change in your photography or a new-found spark, I suggest you travel—it doesn’t need to be far, think of working harder AND smarter—and photograph objects, buildings, items with color, etc., that you normally wouldn’t. Finally: never, never, ever dismiss the potential for an eye-catching photograph, or simply soul-fulfilling capture, in a small town.